David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor.
Papal elections have nothing on the secrecy surrounding the selection of presidents for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The absence of white smoke notwithstanding, what goes on behind those closed doors? But the elevation of Cheryl Boone Isaacs to the Academy’s top spot in July has generated only acclamation. There are two important reasons for this: With decades in the industry and years of devoted service to AMPAS, Boone Isaacs is well qualified to lead the Academy as it faces new challenges. And because she is both African-American and a woman, she is a uniquely visible symbol of the organization’s stated commitment to diversity.
“It feels great, absolutely wonderful,” Boone Isaacs says about her election, sitting outside the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy’s headquarters in Beverly Hills. “I’ve been involved here for a long time. This is a terrific organization, which is constantly changing and evolving. I’ve loved movies my whole life—as have most of us in this business.”
Though it’s still early into her presidency, Boone Isaacs already is focused on increasing member engagement and expanding the Academy’s youth education initiatives. “Young folks know actors, but they don’t really understand the collaboration and community it takes to produce a motion picture—and the job opportunities there are. It also helps them see movies in a different way—appreciating the collaboration and what it takes to achieve the look and sound of a film,” she explains.
Boone Isaacs is unsurprisingly reticent about the Academy’s biggest night of the year, the annual Oscar telecast, slated for March 2. She says no major changes are planned and acknowledges some relief at knowing that both the show’s producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, and host, Ellen DeGeneres, have previously inhabited their respective roles. “They are veterans, if you will,” she says. The important thing, she insists, is that the show remains a worldwide phenomenon. “Every year we have great movies, but this year’s celebration of films is going to be diverse and full of wide-ranging storytelling.”
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Her agenda is packed, and the Academy could hardly ask for a better public face. Boone Isaacs has been a member of the organization’s board of governors—on and off, per AMPAS bylaws—since 1988, having joined the Academy just a year earlier as part of its public relations branch. “It’s not the same as winning a statuette, but the feeling of becoming a member is that you’ve been accepted and appreciated by your peers in a way you may not have thought possible,” she says. “A colleague (originally) suggested I put my name up for a governor’s slot. And once a group of people has supported you, you’d better deliver.”
With a long career as a marketing executive, Boone Isaacs is well-versed in the drive to deliver. She was president of marketing at New Line Cinema, where she worked on such box office hits as Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and Rush Hour. Prior to joining New Line in 1997, she served as president of worldwide publicity at Paramount Pictures, where she worked with then-chairman Sherry Lansing.
“I think the world of Cheryl, and I think the rest of the world does, too,” says Lansing, one of Hollywood’s ultimate insiders and a 2006 recipient of the Academy’s prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. “She’s thoughtful and kind and efficient and hardworking. She has a unique ability to be strong but also to build consensus. She’s collaborative. And she motivates others to work hard, too.”
The producer-director Lee Daniels first met Boone Isaacs when she helped market his Oscar-nominated Precious in 2009 through her consulting firm, CBI Enterprises. “Her people skills are a major asset,” Daniels says. “She has a very calm demeanor and an infectious smile. She has a true love of cinema. And it’s great that she’s a woman of color. It’s exciting times for Hollywood.”
Boone Isaacs’ legacy is likely to be defined by one of the Academy’s biggest undertakings. The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures—scheduled to open in 2017—will occupy an increasing amount of her tenure as president. “We’re building a world-class destination museum,” she says. “We have 17 branches in our organization celebrating the contributions of various crafts, so this museum is not just going to be about movie stars. It’s a coming together of arts and sciences. After all, it’s the sciences that allow the art to be realized.”
Though she doesn’t seem fazed by the prospect of this new venture, she isn’t blind to its challenges. “It’s a different business from what we’re used to,” she says. “We’re a members organization, with one big night each year. But a museum is a 365-days-a-year operation. So that’s something new for us. On the other hand, you can never run out of ideas about how to show and express the history of the motion picture business.”